As cooler breezes send auburn leaves fluttering to the ground and kids adorn pumpkins with toothy Jack-o-Lantern grins, many of our pets are gearing up for one of their least favorite holidays. Now, any dog worth his salt could tell you that 4th of July is clearly worse than Halloween, what with all those frightful fireworks. Yet the ghoulish traditions of October 31st hold their own challenges for our canine (and sometimes feline!) companions.
The days before Halloween typically cause little stir for pets. Owners might notice that their dog spooks at the flapping ghost decorations on a neighbor’s lawn or growls and stares at the plastic black cat silhouettes in their living room windows. In general, however, there is little cause for concern until the trick-or-treating begins. This door-to-door candy-collecting tradition that so thrills children and adults alike is no place for many family dogs.
Although there is the lucky family whose dog shows no reaction at all to activity by the front door, most of us live with dogs who are made excitable by people coming to the home. The door knock or doorbell ring sends many dogs into a barking frenzy – even when the doorbell rings on TV! In addition to the cacophony of barking, there may be jumping, circling, tail chasing, even biting between dogs as they run to the foyer. When the door is opened, there is a confusing flurry of jumping and leaping, noses poking into visitors with excited, or sometimes aggressive, interest. Guests are hurried inside and owners try in various ways to calm their manic mutts.
In short, visitors’ arrivals at the front door are already a time of heightened arousal, overexcitement, and sometimes aggression for many dogs, so when these visitors come in costume, things are easily made much worse.
Dogs are sensitive to peoples’ silhouettes. From a distance, a person’s general shape provides the first visual information available to the dog. Most people have a common general profile – head, torso, and limbs all in about the same positions across people. When this silhouette is altered by, for example, a backpack, a hat, a hooded sweatshirt, or a bundle of groceries, many dogs are unnerved. Dogs who are otherwise friendly and relaxed with new people may bark or growl under these circumstances, eyeing the person cautiously.
As people get closer, dogs begin gathering visual information from their faces. Eye contact is an extraordinarily important canine communication signal and can be used as a threat or as a calming cue. When a person’s eyes are hidden from view as by a baseball hat or sunglasses, many dogs become nervous, fearful or defensive. I have worked with countless clients whose otherwise friendly dogs have lunged at visitors wearing hats or hoodies. Other clients have dogs who have snapped at someone who approached while carrying a box or reached to pet the dog while walking with a cane. My own Sheltie mix Addy, who has been my beloved companion for all of her nine years, will freeze and growl momentarily if I walk out of a room wearing curlers in my hair or donning a hooded rain coat.
Trick-or-treating traditions bring all of these triggers together for a perfect storm of scary stuff for dogs. Doorbells are ringing again and again, owners are spending lots of time in that high-arousal area that is the foyer, and strange creatures that look nothing like the humans dogs are used to keep arriving with mysterious satchels in hand being thrust toward the dogs’ owners!
So as Halloween rolls around, let’s keep the spooking between us humans. Before trick-or-treaters start arriving, set your dog up with a cozy bed somewhere away from the activity, with some peaceful autumnal music playing in the background and a sprinkling of pumpkin-flavored treats or a juicy skeleton bone to chew for the evening.